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January 31, 2011

“The Ditch List.” from Toronto Star. Sunday, January 30, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Anne Hines @ 12:22 pm

Winter on the prairies. Last year, I moved from downtown Toronto to serve as a United Church of Canada minister in Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan (pop 295). In the city, winter was often “that slushy gap between fall and spring.” Dangerous conditions meant being very, very careful or you’d slip on the sidewalk. Here it’s being very, very careful or you’ll end up putting your car into some backroad ditch where you’ll slowly freeze to death as coyotes gnaw at your earlobes. So, it’s a different kind of thing.

As the temperature plummets, vehicles parked outside our local post office or hockey rink are all left running. Locking your vehicle any time is unusual. Audrey Weir reports that when her aunt died leaving Audrey her car, she parked it on the street and left the keys in, hoping someone would take it away. Did this work? “After a while I finally called a friend and gave it to him,” she said. “I got tired of people coming to my door with keys saying ‘You left these in the car.’”

A crucial strategy to surviving rural winter is daily attendance at what’s called “Coffee Row.” Men gather at the bar, hall or gas station to discuss the important matters of the day. Women get together at the restaurant or library. A restaurant owner in a neighbouring town gets up at 6 AM, unlocks the door, puts on the coffee and then goes back to bed. Patrons just help themselves.

If you ask me, Coffee Rows everywhere should be recognized and funded as official government programs. Coffee Row is community, therapy, support group, judge, jury, town planning and current events updates all in one. There’s no point clergy offering to hear confession out here. By the time anyone reached the priest, the cleric would say, “I heard that at Coffee Row days ago. What else have you got?” What I’ve found is that nothing warms a cold morning like a hot cup of coffee shared with friends.

I’m also beginning to learn about country winter weather. One evening, I was preparing to leave for a meeting when I looked outside to see snow blowing sideways and three foot drifts across the road. I called the committee chair asking, “Is our meeting cancelled?” Her response? “No… why?”
As far as I can make out, there are three levels of what constitutes inclement weather:

Level one: Too bad to go to church.
Level two: Too bad to go to Coffee Row.
Level three: Too bad to get to the hockey arena.
On a few days storms have raged and snow has poured down in buckets and we’ve yet to hit a “Level Three.”

There are many local traditions for predicting the length of winter. So far, I’ve been told that many deer means a long winter, few deer means a long winter, snow by Christmas means a long winter, no snow until New Year means a long winter… I finally asked, “Does anything mean you’ll have a short winter?” The answer: Spending three months in Arizona.

In the city, winter driving is an inconvenience. Here, it’s an extreme sport. Sometimes the sky, fields , ditches and roads are one seamless canvas of white. One man advised, “If you can’t tell where the gravel ends and the ditch starts, look for coyote tracks. Coyotes get from place to place by running on the road.” Does that really work? “Absolutely,” he said. “Unless of course it takes off after a rabbit.”

Some people keep Life Lists of birds they’ve spotted or exotic locales they’ve seen. I’m thinking of starting one of “Ditches I’ve Driven Into.” I used to worry about having the right CDs in my car. Now I worry about having The Kit. The Kit contains everything needed to survive overnight in your car. Staying in your car is the safest bet. Lights from a farmhouse may appear close but, on the prairie, could be miles away. The Kit contains a candle, matches, blanket, power bars and a shovel. The shovel is not for digging out your car. It’s for clearing snow off your exhaust pipe so that the car won’t fill with carbon monoxide. I have to say, I am often left reflecting here on what they didn’t teach me in minister’s school.

So, am I ready to be done with rural winter?

On a day of bright sunshine the prairie becomes a wonderland. Snow ripples like ocean waves. Ice crystals hang in the air, glistening like a thousand tiny stars. A snowy owl dips low in the blue early morning sky. As I drive the back grid roads on clergy visits, the silence is awe-inspiring. It quiets the soul.

I know I’ll be glad when spring returns. But for me, for now, let it snow.

January 10, 2011

“In Which I Make My Entire Circle of Friends Jealous by Getting to Drive a Zamboni.” from Toronto Star. New Year’s Day edition. January 1, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Anne Hines @ 3:18 pm

A few months ago I moved from downtown Toronto to Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan (pop 295). I’ve never considered myself the adventurous type. But since coming to the prairies I’ve decided to embrace the chance to try new things for one simple reason. I don’t have a choice.

The list of firstsfor me here is long. There was the first time I got a stone chip on my windshield. I felt like a true Saskatchewanian. The second, third and fourth times it happened were slightly less thrilling.

There are the “first time I ate something” events. This includes crane, elk-burgers, steelhead trout jerky, snow goose, Canada goose and moose filet. This last was cooked up by Willard Ross in homemade sauce, served with veggies from his garden and wild blueberries to finish. The rule here seems to be,”if it runs, flies or swims, we’ll eat it.” So far, I have no problem with this.

I’ve experienced my first hunting season.Out-of-towners pour into our tiny community, parading the streets in neon jackets, lounging for hours in our local bar, complaining that they never see any moose. The locals, on the other hand, never seem to have any trouble finding them with their car.

In the post office I overheard two older men debating whether, if a moose wanders into the centre of town, it’s OK to shoot it. After listening for several minutes I realized that the question wasn’t whether or not this was safe but whether or not it was sporting.

One group of hunters turned up at Elaine Jones’ house early one Sunday morning enquiring if she’d seen any anteope in the area. This is not hunting, it’s “asking.”

By far my most sensational first happened last week. Tim Clifford came by and said those words I’d been waiting my whole life to hear. “Say, would you like to drive the zamboni?”

It’s the dream of every true Canadian to drive a zamboni. Well that, and that there will someday be a law that there has to be a Tim Horton’s on every block. And that stores can’t start showing winter clothing while it’s still summer.

A zamboni is big. It’s hockey-related. It has a fun name. It’s hockey-related.

I called my friends. I’m getting to flood (this is zamboni-talk) the hockey arena! My pal, Michael, mused, “Well, just try not to get lost.” I would like to call him unhelpful. Really, he just knows me.

I arrived at the rink breathless with excitement. Tim patiently explained the basic workings of the machine. I didn’t understand a word. Except for the part that if you don’t crank one particular lever up and down fast and often bad things will happen. Tim hoisted me into the drivers seat and showed me how to fire up the engine. Several tons of vibrating steel rumbled beneath me.

Some teenage boys arrived to play hockey and stood watching patiently behind the boards.

Tim: OK, back it out.

I sat.

Tim: Anytime.

I tried to look as if I was savouring the moment. Really, I was reflecting on the fact that clearly Tim is insane. There’s about a foot clearance on either side of the zamboni garage door. A pilot used to negotiating cruise ships through the Panama canal couldn’t get this thing out the door. The teenagers began getting restless.

Finally, I pulled the reverse lever and the zamboni shot backward out of the garage.

Tim: OK, next time try it faster. With less screaming.

Soon, I was rocketing around the ice at almost 4 mph. I learned to try to keep the front directional wheel close to the board. I learned what happens when it gets too close to the board. I learned that if you miss a patch those watching will helpfully call out “You missed a spot!” Every time. I learned that if you forget to crank the important lever Tim will catapult himself onto the zamboni, scaring the life out of me.

I ended up with a spectacularly well cleared rink. So long as your idea of perfection includes a few wide tiger stripes of snow. I managed to manoeuvre the machine back into the garage and Tim let me push the button that raises the hood and dumps the snow. It was very satisfying.

I’m told I’m the first female to drive the Lucky Lake zamboni. Likely a plaque will be placed in the arena. It may be hard to come up with something to top that first. Tim said I could operate the skate sharpening machine if he can find someone who doesn’t use their skates. And I’ve heard that once the nearby Saskatchewan River freezes I can drive my SUV across an ice road.I certainly plan to try that.

I’ve been surprised to find that the more things I try here, the more I’m up for a fresh new adventure. And for me, that’s a first.

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